Read Love Stories in This Town Online

Authors: Amanda Eyre Ward

Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Short Stories (Single Author), #Literary, #General

Love Stories in This Town (9 page)

BOOK: Love Stories in This Town
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After dinner, Fred said, “I suppose you want to hear about the demise of my latest. It all began with an unfortunate blonde named Winnie.”

“You know what, Dad? I don't really want to hear this.”

“Well, okay then,” said Fred. “Now that I think about it, it's none of your fucking business.”

“If you're going to talk to my … to my Lola that way,” said Emmett, “I'm going to have to ask you to leave, sir.”

“With pleasure,” said Fred. He stood, brushed off his pants, and made for the door. “About
he said, “for a nightcap.”

This was what Fred did, his modus operandi. He fell off the wagon and blamed it on someone else. He was never at fault, just an upstanding man pushed to the brink by a wife, a daughter, the world conspiring against him. It was so discouraging. Whenever Lola said good-bye to her father, she wondered if she would ever see him again.

Every time she moved, Lola picked a postcard and sent it to Fred, carefully writing her change of address. At the V & S Variety Store, she had found a card with a picture of a flock of sheep and written, “Dear Dad, My new address is below. Hope you are well.” Lola stood with her ballpoint poised for some time. She almost wrote “love” before her name, but then refrained. She did love her father— desperately—but knew that she shouldn't, after what he had done, and who he had turned out to be. Finally, she scribbled, “All best, LOLA.” The front of the card read, MISSING EWE!

Now, Lola said, “Don't leave, Dad. Really, it's fine. Stay.”

Fred shrugged and, as if he were doing them a favor, sat down in a faded blue La-Z-Boy chair. Relieved, Lola looked at Emmett, who was considering her with something she had never seen before in his eyes: disappointment.

Margie-Ann said she thought a mine tour would be even better than a potluck. “It'll be
said Margie-Ann. Jayne, whose father had worked in the mines for thirty years, was noncommittal. She might be busy, she said, she really wasn't sure. But when they pulled into the parking lot on Sunday morning, both Jayne and Margie-Ann were waiting for them, wearing dresses.

“Do you two have any more comfortable shoes?” Emmett asked politely. Lola's friends looked down at their fancy footwear and smiled, shaking their heads. Fred turned on the charm, joking about carrying the ladies across the threshold and feigning interest in the animal adoption process. Emmett waited patiently, hands in his Patagonia parka.

When Fred had finished schmoozing, he said, “Face Man! Let's get this show on the road.”

Emmett gave everyone a hard hat and a yellow rain slicker, and they climbed into the mine car. Emmett went into the office to get the key, and Fred turned to Lola. He was handsome, spirited underneath his plastic hat. “Don't know what to tell you, honey,” he said, putting his arm around Lola and pulling her close. He was wearing his cologne, Royall Lyme. He smelled like the successful banker he had once been. “I just think you could do better, I don't know what else to say,” said Fred.

Emmett came out of the office, holding up a ring of keys. “Are we ready to take a ride back in time?” he asked. Lola, who had never been on a mine tour, was suddenly nervous.

“Move it along,” said Fred. He squeezed her again. Margie-Ann and Jayne turned to Lola, making apprehensive-but-game faces. “Don't worry about a thing, ladies,” said Fred.

Emmett opened the wooden doors, exposing a dark tunnel. He climbed into the mine car and drove slowly forward. Inside the shaft, the air was clammy and close. Lola felt as if she couldn't get enough oxygen. “We're going to head eighteen hundred feet into Gold Hill,” Emmett began. “At the height of the mining boom in the San Juan mountains, thousands worked underground.”

Lola knew that these shafts collapsed, trapping miners who simply suffocated one by one. She had heard stories about these men, and now she felt their presence. She had never had an anxiety attack, but perhaps she was about to. Emmett began talking about dynamiting and methods of gold extraction. Fred's arm around Lola was a comfort.

“My poor dad,” whispered Jayne, peering around.

“This is eerie,” said Margie-Ann.

“You said it,” said Fred.

Emmett stopped his spiel mid-sentence. After a moment, he said, in a controlled voice, “Does anyone want to hear about the history of the mine?”

“Is there anything titillating?” said Fred, chuckling. “Maybe we could skip ahead to that part.”

Margie-Ann giggled guiltily. “I think history is fascinating,” said Jayne.

“The miners worked twelve-hour days,” said Emmett. His voice was calm and lovely, if a bit strident. “They went to work in the dark and came home in the dark. Their lives were at risk, but they did what they had to do to support their wives and children.”

There was a whispering sound, a match against a matchbox. Fred had taken his arm from around Lola's shoulders and was bent over, lighting a cigar. He made the puffing, inhaling sound, and then said, “Ah,” as the cigar filled his mouth and the mine shaft with smoke.

“Fred, you're going to have to put that out,” said Emmett. There was an uncomfortable silence. Lola wanted to climb from the car and run back toward the entrance.

“Fred,” said Emmett, standing up. He trained his headlamp on Lola's father. “Fred, I said
put that out.”

“Why not just put out the cigar,” said Margie-Ann, nervously.

“Come on, Fred,” said Jayne. Lola felt a wave of sadness for them, imagining the anticipation with which they had put on dresses and shoes with heels. She could almost smell their wishes souring.

“Dad …,” said Lola.

“What?” said Fred. “What is it, Lollabee?” This was the name he had used for Lola when she was little, when they had watched
Sesame Street
together in their Upper East Side apartment, Fred dressed for work but lingering, letting Lola sit on his lap and saying, “What letter is that, Lollabee? Is that the letter ‘J’?”

But Lola didn't say anything. She looked at Emmett pleadingly, though she wasn't sure what her plea was. End this, or fix this—help me. Fred continued to puff.

With the same sure movements Emmett had used on the river, he stepped from the mine car and walked to Lola's father. He took the cigar out of Fred's hand and tossed it to the ground, extinguishing it with the heel of his boot. “Now,” he said, “let me tell you about the day they discovered gold in the Bachelor mine.”

“Oh my,” said Jayne.

Fred chuckled meanly, shaking his head. “Oh, this is ripe,” he said. “This is really ripe. You know what, Face Man? I'd like an apology, or I'm going to just walk right out of here.”

Emmett cocked his head, and put his hands on his hips. “Adios,” he said.

Fred sat up straight. “Lola,” he said sharply. “Honey, I'm not standing for this. It's about time to skedaddle. I'm going. Come on.”

He stood, and exited the car. He took Lola's hand, gripping her fingers painfully. Lola was amazed to find that it took only a quick shake to free herself. She wasn't leaving until her husband had finished the story of the Bachelor. And she wasn't moving to Cleveland.

Motherhood and Terrorism

Lola thought the baby shower would be canceled due to the beheading, but she was wrong. Karen McDaniels called early Friday morning to see if Lola wanted a ride to Liberty Avenue.

“Oh,” said Lola, “is your shower still on?”

“Well, why wouldn't it be?” said Karen, an argumentative edge to her voice.

“The attacks in al-Khobar,” said Lola, “and … and the head.” She swallowed. “I guess I thought …”

“Did you know him?” said Karen.

“What? No.”

“Phew!” Karen breathed a sigh of relief. “Honey,” she said, her voice slipping back into its buttery Texas twang, “it's all quiet now up there. You can't let these Muslim whack jobs run your life.”

“Right,” said Lola.

“And Jody's making nachos,” added Karen.

“Okay,” said Lola, hanging up the phone.

Emmett looked up from the
Arab News
. “Who was that?” he asked.

“Karen,” said Lola, “of Karen and Andy McDaniels.”

“Great!” said Emmett, flashing a wide smile before looking back at the paper. On the top of his head, his hair was thinning a little. Lola remembered lying next to him soon after they had begun living together, looking at his sandy hair and thinking she owned every handful of it. Now she understood: she would lose it all eventually, and be left with a big, bald head.

“What's in the news?” said Lola.

“Oh,” said Emmett, “same old.”

Lola knew that the shooting spree on the nearby Oasis Compound was not same old. Twenty-two people had been killed, and the terrorists had promised to rid the Arabian peninsula of infidels. Infidels like Lola. She had been dreaming of gunmen for weeks. In her dreams, a man with a scratchy beard held her head against his chest. He asked her whether she was Christian or Muslim. When she said she was an atheist, but willing to be convinced, the terrorist looked confused. Then he shot her.

•  •  •

From the moment she'd stepped off the plane—her back sore from the sixteen-hour flight, her eyes blinded by desert sun— she had felt a brewing dread. It was cool on the tarmac, and she found out later that the whole zone was air-conditioned.

“They air-condition the
she'd said to Emmett.

“They've got more money than you can imagine,” said Emmett. “They do whatever they please.”

Day by day, fear had grown in Lola. At the welcoming cocktail parties, the compound Softball games, she approached other wives, asking them,
Are you afraid?
Do you ever wonder if we should go home?
She found quickly that these were not the sorts of questions you asked in Haven Compound.

“You sweet thing,” Karen McDaniels had said, moving her hand from her young daughter's shoulder to Lola's cheek. “You need some hobbies and a little baby or two. And a drink. Somebody get this girl a drink!” Karen, who was probably Lola's age, was pregnant with her third child.

“You're my wonderful Lola, that's who you are,” said Emmett in bed one night, when Lola had drunk duty-free wine until she couldn't keep from talking. Emmett scratched her back and said, “Maybe take some tennis lessons?”

“Tennis lessons? Ugh,” she said, thinking of her mother, a tennis pro in Westchester. At sixty, Nan still wore short white skirts. Her exposed legs had always embarrassed Lola, and the way she stretched on the court, fully aware all the husbands were watching her.

“I've never felt so
said Lola.

“Oh sweetie,” said Emmett, “yes you have.”

•  •  •

Now, he drained his coffee cup. “Off to the races,” he said, glancing at his beeper. The damn beeper woke them up nights, paging Emmett to discuss some drilling mishap. When it went off, Emmett ran to the office as if he were a doctor, though what he worked on was not hearts, but oil wells.

“What races?” said Lola.

“I don't know,” said Emmett, looking embarrassed. “Just something to say.”

“My mom wrote again,” said Lola. “She says we're not safe here. She thinks we should come home.”

Emmett put his thumb and forefinger to his eyes and pressed, a gesture that made him look old. “We're safe,” he said. “I don't know how many ways to say it. But if you need to go to your mom's for a while, then you should go.”

“I have Karen's baby shower today,” said Lola.

“That will be fun,” said Emmett, “won't it?”

“Sure,” said Lola.

“Maybe we should have a baby,” said Emmett.

“Spare me,” said Lola.

She stood in front of her bedroom mirror for some time. The master suite had thick carpeting and carved mahogany furniture. It was a bedroom fit for a sultan, with gold braiding and tassels around everything, even the Kleenex-box holder. When Lola lay on her bed, she tried to understand how she had ended up an oil wife beneath a garish chandelier.

“Are you afraid to be here?” she asked Corazon, the maid scrubbing her Jacuzzi tub.

Corazon did not answer. Lola pulled on a black dress her mother had sent from Old Navy. It smelled of America: crisp, synthetic, clean.

“Corazon?” Lola said. “Are you afraid to be on an American compound?”

Corazon stood up, her hand on her back, and pursed her lips. She looked at the floor as she said, “You are a target, Mrs. Lola, and I am in the way of the target.”

“Fabulous,” said Lola.

Nan had e-mailed four more times, saying she was very worried and would pay for Lola's flight to JFK if money was the problem. Lola thought of her mother waiting outside Baggage Claim in her aging Mercedes, a visor stuck in her platinum hair. She thought of her mother's smug smile, the way she would not say,
You thought you found love, but men are all the same

“They say we are protected,” Lola typed back. “The attacks are on the coast, and the compound is filled with guards. I am headed to a friend's baby shower! Love, Lola.”

Lola clicked SEND, then held her head in her hands.

“Miss,” said Mayala, the cook, tapping Lola on the shoulder. “Miss, your lunch is ready.” Lola nodded and wiped her eyes. She turned to face Mayala, a thin woman with her hair pulled severely back from her face. “I made you the frozen pizza,” she said, not hiding her disgust. “The Tombstone frozen pizza,” she added.

“I appreciate it,” said Lola.

As she chewed the slices, Lola looked around her gleaming kitchen. Just a year before, they had lived in a one-bedroom rental in Colorado. Lola sat behind the front desk at the Second Chance Humane Society and Thrift Shop, and Emmett ran raft trips and gave tours through the local mines. They made simple dinners on a hot plate and watched the stars from their front porch. Lola's cat, Sue, loved the porch; Sue was now living indefinitely with Emmett's parents.

Finding abandoned puppies in a box outside the front door of the Humane Society was horrible, of course, but Lola was the one who got to bring them inside, and give them breakfast. She was allowed to name a rescued cat, a brown short-hair someone had found at the Orvis Hot Springs. (“Nudie.”) The only part of her job she couldn't stand was interacting with the people ditching their pets. She tried not to look at the animal's faces as their owners made lame excuses about having to move out-of-state or feeling the pet would be better off in a quieter home. Lola stroked the dogs, settled the cats into her lap. She met the animals' curious gazes directly when their owners had departed. “I'm glad you're here,” she told them.

After a year, Emmett finished his dissertation. Three job offers materialized: a one-year postdoc in Connecticut, an assistant professor position in a rural town somewhat near Raleigh, and a geophysicist job with British Petroleum in Saudi Arabia. “I look around at my professors and they just seem so
he'd said. “In Saudi, I'll be working with the best scientists, and the fact is we all use gas. Like it or not. Even professors use gas, Lolly. And BP will send us all over the world.” Emmett's hands had moved like birds as he described the adventurous life that awaited them. “We'll never worry about money again. We'll have maids. A cook, even!” Emmett came from an oil family—his father had done stints in Libya and Saudi—so he knew whereof he spoke.

“I'm not worried about money now,” said Lola. In fact, she liked their cozy house and mismatched silverware. It all felt so different from her miserable childhood, though she had to admit that Saudi Arabia would feel different too.

One night, Emmett made lamb kebabs with Middle Eastern spices and placed a handmade card next to her plate.
Will you come with me to Riyadh?
the card read. When Lola said yes, Emmett popped a bottle of champagne.

Andrei, the veterinarian who volunteered at Second Chance, was nonplussed by the news of her move. “I thought you might stick around a while,” he said.

“I'm sorry,” said Lola. “Emmett finished his PhD. He took a job in Saudi Arabia. It's just for a few years. I'm going to write about the Middle East. Or a novel. I'm going to write something, is the plan. I was a communications major.” Lola realized she was rambling, and fell silent.

“Oh,” said Andrei dismissively. “Well … sounds wild.” And it had sounded wild, at first. Lola imagined nights of hot sex in some sort of bedouin tent.

•  •  •

As Lola ate, she saw that Mayala, usually a frenzy of activity, was standing still in the kitchen. Mayala had seven children at home, but spent her days in Haven, cooking for Lola and Emmett. Often, Emmett worked late, and Lola sat alone at the long table with platters of food. She could hear her Filipino staff giggling and speaking rapid Tagalog in the kitchen, but she did not dare to join them.

“Is something wrong?” Lola asked Mayala.

“No ma'am,” said Mayala, but she did not meet Lola's eyes.

In two days, she would be gone, writing on the kitchen dry erase board, “I am sorry. I am scared. Cook pizza for twenty minutes at 350 degrees.”

After lunch, Lola went for a walk. Haven was surrounded by high walls, so she could walk outside without a head covering or long pants. The pool was filled with kids, and two teenage girls lay on either side of a boom box playing Aerosmith. As Lola walked by, one of them lifted an arm and pressed her fingers to her skin, checking her tan. Standing by the pool were two armed Saudi men dressed in guard uniforms, their sunglasses hiding their eyes.

Suzi and Fran waved as Lola passed the tennis courts. As doubles partners, they won every tournament. Suzi's husband, Carl, was Haven's best golfer. Emmett had encouraged Lola to get out, make friends, but it was so gut-wrenchingly hot. She preferred to read inside her cool bedroom, and had joined the Bookies only to shut Emmett up. The first book choice had been
Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives
, by Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Women were not allowed to drive outside of the compound, so Lola arranged for a chauffeur to take her shopping in the city. This was before the Khobar massacre, and Lola was nervous, but excited, to leave the compound.

As soon as the limousine passed through the guard station, the landscape changed. Abruptly, green lawns and large houses were replaced by desert. The limousine, clean and black as they left the compound, became covered with a thin layer of sand as they moved toward the city. They drove through narrow streets, and Lola saw groups of women in robes led by men who walked a few strides ahead of them. Some of the women held hands, and Lola felt a pang of jealousy. Lola had never had a group of giggling girlfriends. She had always been the one in the corner of the bar, staring at her napkin.

The limousine passed fast-food restaurants—McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken—and Lola saw the separate entrances for women and men. Stopped at a traffic light, Lola watched three boys playing with a thin dog that looked like some sort of Doberman mix. The dog rolled over, exposing its stomach, and one of the boys shrieked and knelt down, pressing his face to the dog's neck. There were flies everywhere, flies that had somehow been exterminated from Haven.

Lola walked around the bookstore for an hour, hiding under her
. From the eye opening, she watched other women touching each other, pressing fingers to the thick cloth. Lola could not bring herself to buy the Bookies' pick, and bought
All Creatures Great and Small
instead with her wad of riyals. A month later, the Oasis Compound was attacked, and people started ordering books online.

The baby shower was at four. Corazon made Lola sit down, then rubbed blush into Lola's cheeks. At the Humane Society, Andrei used to sing whenever Lola walked past his office:
“Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl!”
Life was simpler then, before Lola knew she should be ashamed of her bare legs, her car, and her country. She couldn't help it: Lola started to cry.

“I don't understand you, madame,” said Corazon.

“My mom wants me to come home,” said Lola. “I don't know what to do. Maybe she's right.”

“How about this nice headband?” said Corazon, taking the plastic band from her own head.

“No, no,” said Lola, but Corazon did not listen, sweeping Lola's red hair back, jamming the band in place.

“Maybe everyone should stay home,” said Corazon. “Maybe everyone should stay at their own home and never leave.” Lola looked at Corazon, whose home was the Philippines. “Wear the nice headband,” Corazon said, staring at Lola and speaking in a cold hiss.

Emmett was excelling at his job—he was addicted to the frenzy, to his own growing importance—and his desire for a baby seemed to grow with every successful well. “Don't you want children?” he'd say over dinner.

“Someday!” cried Lola. “I'm busy,” she said, pointing to the second bedroom, which they called her office. She sat in her office for hours every morning, drinking coffee and surfing the Internet on her new computer. Emmett had made a sign that said, “QUIET PLEASE, NOVELIST AT WORK,” and taped it to the door. But Lola was sick of trying to write. She didn't want to report the news, and she didn't want to make things up. She had thought of blogging about her expat experience, but after one entry, “Desert Dessert,” about the sweets she'd eaten (saffron tapioca and Arabian orange ice were her favorites, so far), she had run out of steam.

BOOK: Love Stories in This Town
2.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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